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Business

Autonomous driving finds new avenues in cleaning, farming

Cutting-edge tech finds practical use amid automakers' grander visions

A California startup has put self-driving tech to practical use in floor cleaners for use at malls, airports and other facilities.

TOKYO -- While some automakers strive to create vehicles that drive themselves on highways and the like, other companies are finding more immediate uses for autonomous-driving tech, such as in short rides, cleaning and agriculture.

Japan's Yamaha Motor formed a business and capital tie-up with a university-affiliated startup called Tier IV, aiming to develop a service in which miniature electric vehicles ferry passengers at slow speeds over distances that would take about 20 minutes on foot. Traffic safety regulations are relaxed for vehicles that operate below 20kph. The service may garner demand from senior citizens as the population ages.

Tier IV, whose work builds on research from institutions including Nagoya University, makes operating system software geared toward autonomous driving. Yamaha's transport system has been able to run only along electromagnetic guides so far, but Tier IV's technology should let it roam free. The Nagoya-based startup is seen procuring around 1 billion yen ($9.28 million) from a host of backers including Yamaha.

For autonomous driving as automakers envision it to take hold, a societal consensus will be needed on certain rules governing the technology, as well as issues such as what rate of accident occurrence can be allowed.

Given the various risks self-driving vehicles entail, "low-speed transport methods in limited spaces may be able to be implemented sooner," said Shinpei Kato, an associate professor of information science at the University of Tokyo who serves as Tier IV's chief technology officer.

"We don't focus on self driving cars because this space is over crowded and Google is a clear winner," said Eugene Izhikevich, CEO of American software company Brain. The San Diego-based business has released large, self-driving machines that clean floors to clients in the U.S. such as airports and commercial facilities. Brain received investment from SoftBank Group through the Japanese tech powerhouse's $93 billion Vision Fund, and intends to launch the products in Japan as early as this year in collaboration with SoftBank Robotics.

Brain sees possibilities for its technology in new fields ranging from factory transport robots to wheelchairs. The company aims to choose its next target by spring.

Japanese construction equipment maker Komatsu also is pursuing self-driving tech as a means to save labor. Compatriot Kubota began selling tractors with autonomous-driving functions in June.

On top of its visions for self-driving cars on high-speed roads and in urban environments, Nissan Motor last year began testing an autonomous towing system for assembled cars at a Kanagawa Prefecture plant. The automaker is considering doing likewise at other factories.

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